NEW YORK -- A few days after arriving in America, Robert Smith of the Cure seems to be suffering from boat lag. Smith won't fly, so he and several band-mates came over on the QE2, a five-day trip the singer and guitarist insists is more than endless rounds of shuffleboard and deck quoits.

"It's pretty exhausting," Smith says softly. "There's too many bars."

This time around, the British band's American tour kicked off slowly -- the group buses to Capital Centre tomorrow and Tuesday -- a lesson learned after a similar seajourn four years before. "The last time, we disembarked at 8 in the morning, did an afternoon sound check and a show that very night at Giants Stadium. That night the whole stage was moving. ... It was very weird."

As might the Cure be, at least to those who have somehow missed its gradual rise from taut post-punk moroseness to pop stardom around the world. In his hotel room, Smith is pallid and casually awry, like a finished Edward Scissorhands: His black coiffure is electrically impermanent, though the trademark scarlet smudge of lipstick is absent. His is a face that's launched a thousand pale black-clad sylphs, and a voice that's validated a youthful audience's fascination with sweet, brooding despair. In the world of neo-Gothic rock, the Cure was the first prophet of gloom, its music powerful enough to offset the confusion and alienation its lyrics so vividly describe.

Smith may have been a melancholy baby before being knighted misery's poster boy, but offstage he's a tranquil, convivial character who has some odd takes on "the level {of success} we've reached. People react to me in such an alien way. ... If I take a step toward them, they take a step back."

On the other hand, "we've been kind of semi-deified by certain elements of our audience who think we're something more than human.

"And it's worrying because you can get into thinking, 'Well, yes, I am!' "

Smith's kidding, of course, though he and his band-mates are popular enough to see their "Wish" album recently open at No. 2 on the charts and to have actually contemplated an alternative plan to address their dislike for touring: setting up in the middle of England and having the rest of the kingdom come to them.

"I haven't flown since 1986 and decided I wouldn't ever fly again," Smith says. "Unfortunately I'm going to fly this year because we're going back to Australia and New Zealand. We were going to break up the American tour on the West Coast and take a boat down there, but it takes 24 days. I'd rather take my chances in a plane."

On the new album, Smith and the Cure seem to be taking another chance. Sure, it's filled with the obligatory songs about paranoid, claustrophobic doomed relationships (such as "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea," which suggests "it's always the same/ wake up in the rain/ head in pain/ hung in shame ... same old game/ love in vain").

But the band's current single, "Friday I'm in Love," is a pure pop jingle, decidedly uncharacteristic not only for its bouncy beat, but for Smith's apparent exuberance. The song didn't start out that way, though, when the Cure was recording in December -- and it was just an instrumental track.

"Originally it was at half the speed," Smith confesses. "Very downbeat." Then bassist Simon Gallup lived up to his name and "started playing it faster and faster until we hit a tempo that felt comfortable, and suddenly I realized it was a pop song. ... I didn't have any sort of up words for it because I've never been motivated to write songs when I'm happy. Yet when we were in the studio, the others were going, 'If you want this on the record, Robert, you've got to write some happy words to it.' "

After four fretful days, Smith woke up -- "on a Friday" -- with the idea that "we all still feel that sense that Friday is a different day and when you get to Friday night you're determined to enjoy yourself at all costs. So I wrote the whole thing in five minutes."

Still, Smith was reluctant to sing it to his mates. "When I came back in the control room the others were genuinely surprised at how happy it was -- they thought I was going to sing something a bit morose over it, and they were waiting for the twist."

Smith is now learning to deal with the levity the song provokes when he sings it in concert. "The other day, I actually had a little bit of an Elvis laughing fit onstage," he recalls. "I was very worried for a moment. The others were all looking at me like I'd taken something and it had just kicked in, but I was just suddenly overwhelmed, singing that song for all these people, and they were all smiling.

"It was very ... weird."

Leave it to Robert Smith to have a nervous breakup onstage, though he insists he is a long way from abandoning the demons that have kept him company all these years.

"There's a voice that's still in me, but it's been quieted," he explains. "I'm not really that much happier than I ever was, but I was never as miserable as everybody thought I was. In some ways, I've discovered things that I like, a way of life that I feel comfortable in. I still feel uncomfortable a lot of the time and that won't ever go away."

Now 32, Smith is half a lifetime away from his not particularly creepy Crawley (Sussex) youth and a first band called Malice, followed by the Easy Cure (eventually shortened to the Cure). Winning a talent contest that brought new equipment and a demo session, the group released its first single in 1978, "Killing an Arab," a three-minute distillation of Albert Camus' "The Stranger." The song provoked a storm of controversy in the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis, particularly among those who were familiar only with its title and not its history.

"When I was still in school at 13, even before the whole punk thing, I used to think it would be good to be in a really important group," Smith recalls. "Not necessarily a really famous one, though. I loved Hendrix; he was a most formative influence growing up, and I thought it would be really good being him. But I didn't want to be like him because then everybody would know who you were and I didn't look forward to that. And so I thought maybe I'd do something else. I actually, seriously, wanted to be an astronaut."

He's told that some folks think he's achieved his goal, that perhaps he's something of a spaceman.

"So do I, sometimes," Smith says with a sweet laugh.

Beginning with 1981's "Faith" album and the following year's "Pornography," the Cure graduated from cult status to pop stardom, with Smith in particular suffering the flings and eros of outrageous fortune. "It was a low point -- I hated everything around me -- and I was attempting to induce a sort of derangement by whatever means were at my disposal... until I had to outgrow it -- I had no choice, really.

"I was young enough to have survived," Smith says reflectively. "If I tried it now, I would just die, basically." As for much of the music from that period, "I can't listen to that at all."

The 1983 British pop hit "The Love Cats" (inspired by Disney's "The Aristocats") was a first dispelling of the doom rep and Smith became something of a pop idol, a role he now seems to relish from a distance. The band itself has been through some shape-shifting. "It's been more than one group through the years, really," Smith says. "This group {drummer Boris Williams, bassist Gallup, guitarist Porl Thompson and guitarist-keyboardist Perry Bamonte} doesn't have anything to do with the group that made 'Faith.' I'm even a completely different person in a lot of ways, though I have much in common with that Robert. I think I would still like myself now if I met myself then; I'm not sure if I would like myself then. I think I was a bit self-obsessed, really."

Which helps explain why "Wish" (including its title) seems a decidedly more optimistic work than the Cure's last studio album, "Disintegration." Ironically, director Tim Burton had sent Smith the script for "Edward Scissorhands" for a possible soundtrack contribution, but he had to pass on it because of the "Disintegration" sessions. "It made laugh when I first saw the film," Smith admits. "I've seen this somewhere before ... They call me Edward on the bus -- Edward Colanderhands!"

"Wish" started out as two albums until it became apparent listening to the demos that "certain songs sounded like they should stay instrumental," says Smith. "They were moody and slow and I thought it would be pretty dull, really, to bring out a Cure album that was going to reinforce the myth of us being doom and gloom.

"Yet we enjoy that side of what we do, so we started a separate project, 'Music for Dreams,' but we didn't want an instrumental album to sound like a Cure album without me singing on it, so we shelved it reluctantly. But it will be the next thing we do."

There are two main reasons "we're back in America," Smith adds. "The actual concert side, I have to admit, I miss. It's a side of me that I don't get to express in any other way. Away from the stage I'm not shy, but I suppose I am quiet. When I'm onstage, I'm not," he says with a muffled chuckle.

"Actually, the main reason we're back is because the others like touring, and they can't do it without me," he says. "They basically worked on me over the last three years, making me remember all the good parts."

And forget some of the bad parts. "Wish" ends with "End," which Smith says was inspired by the Cure's 1989 American tour. It reflects the anxiety Smith feels is a result of some of his audiences' overweening adoration: in 1986, an obsessed fan had climbed onstage during a San Francisco show and repeatedly stabbed himself in the chest (the audience thought it was part of the show). The fan survived, but Smith was shaken.

"Please stop loving me/ I am none of these things," Smith sings in the chorus; he says the song is indeed "addressed partly to that element of our fans that always want something more."

Hordes seem to imitate Smith, right down to the frizz-dried hair and the sloppy lipstick traces, often the only color in their physical landscape. This despite the fact that Smith seldom favors darkness outside his lyrics. In the past, Smith has called these apparently obsessive fans "waifs," and he even wrote a sly tune about these emulators, "Why Can't I Be You." Naturally, it's a favorite among Cure fans.

"We do tend to attract a minority of people who are pretty weird -- weirder than us," Smith concedes, "but I think people misunderstand that whole dressing-up thing. It's not that they want to be me or be like me, it's to show that they like the Cure and what we represent. ... And maybe people who like us are of a type -- they like reading certain books, and are generally intelligent and introspective and quite nice to talk to. Maybe a bit obsessive about certain things -- same as me, I suppose -- but they're touched by certain things I've written about."

"End," Smith says, isn't just addressing the fans. "The bulk of it is me addressing me, I think. It's about that self-destructive streak that runs through a lot of what I do. I actually want things to go wrong sometimes. ... But if I were to keep reiterating it, it would become laughable, so I've moved away from it on purpose. I know a lot more, I've experienced a lot more, I've come to terms with certain things which used to bother me so much that I couldn't function.

"I've got a home now, which I've never had before," says Smith, who was married in a Benedictine monastery in 1988 to Mary, his companion since 1974, when he was a lad of 14. "That's had an enormous impact -- I'm a much more settled person."

Smith still worries about things "all the time," but where once he sang "I wish I'd stayed asleep today," he's now humming a new tune. "I have a home by the sea now and I wake up and I actually want to get up and go look at the sea. It's a feeling that's quite alien to me. I've never wanted to get up in my entire life -- until the past two years. Maybe it's tied in to the notion that I'm running out of time, as well. I used to think I wasn't wasting time when I was in bed, but now I do."

"Yes -- GET UP, BE HAPPY."

Then: "It doesn't ring completely true, does it?"

But it does suggest why we're unlikely to ever hear the long-finished Robert Smith solo album. Through the years, Smith accumulated songs that the Cure hadn't used for various reasons, and "when I had 12, I decided to record them for my own benefit, so they wouldn't get lost.

"But they're incredibly miserable and I found when I was doing them I didn't genuinely feel that miserable and I couldn't sing some of the words because I didn't feel like that anymore. And when it was finished, I felt even more like it wasn't me anymore. I suppose it's a bit like a diary for me, one of those things maybe when I'm older, it might come out."

Cure fans can abandon hope for bootleg relief.

"I'm the only person in the whole world who's actually got a copy," Smith says, with a certain relief. "I haven't even given the others a copy. When I die in the inevitable plane crash in Australia, {Fiction label head and Cure manager} Chris Parry will be desperate to find where I've hidden the master tapes so he can release a posthumous miserable solo album."